Scotland’s S&C coach took his first steps into full-time rugby at Glasgow Warriors, which marked a pivotal moment in his professional life – not least in coming into the orbit of a certain Gregor Townsend. Both men would soon enjoy the fruits of their labour when the Warriors won the Pro12 in 2015.
Reunited with Townsend at national level, Yule emphasises the importance of the coaching staff’s philosophy in determining how his approach fits in with theirs. “It’s the defining part. Depending on how we want to play and what the coaches are looking for, and also what stimulus the coaches are providing in the rugby environment,” he explains. “If their philosophy is that they want to be on the pitch for a long time, or they want to train with intensity, it’s almost like a jigsaw: where do we as S&C then fit in to support that, rather than us adding the same thing?
“It might mean we don’t have to do a lot of running from an S&C side because it’s contained in rugby. It’s all about working together, the integration of everything that’s important for a player or team to realise their performance potential on the weekend.”
Have the principles of S&C changed much from the time he first entered the world of professional rugby? “At a basic level, they’re based on the laws of physics that Newton came up with around force and mass and acceleration, so the principles to develop these qualities haven’t necessarily changed,” he answers. “We can’t get away from the fact that rugby is a collision-based sport, so being strong and having that ability to express force is important, but it’s not important on its own: it has to be transferred into real technical mastery around things like the contact area and scrummaging. That’s the work of the coaches. The margins are so fine now.”
Yule sheds light on the role of S&C in players’ career longevity. He advocates for a nuanced approach, emphasising progressive physical development and instilling professional behaviours from a young age. It was in an earlier role with the Scottish Institute of Sport that he first encountered young up-and-comers like Richie Gray, now 34 and still playing a significant role in the trajectory of the Scottish game today.
“From seeing Richie develop as a young player to where he is now has been great. The same with someone like Rob Harley, who is still Glasgow’s most capped player. It’s been a privilege to watch them go right through their journey.”
The secret to that longevity, according to Yule, lies in empowering young players to take ownership of their well-being – a mantra that extends well into their 30s. "Undoubtedly it’s about starting a physical development programme progressively and giving them good competencies when they’re young,” says Yule. “Whether that’s learning professional behaviours or the basics of recovery, ultimately the individuals themselves are taking real ownership. It means older players who are still playing have 100% ownership of those processes. They’re not waiting for the S&C coach to tell them to do their recovery, or to eat right, or sleep well. They know all that and own it.”
Whatever Yule and his team are doing for Scotland, the results are there for all to see on the pitch. In the 2023 Championship, Scotland made the most tackles (831) of any team, and also missed the fewest (75), giving them a 92% success rate – the best of all six countries. The fitter and stronger the team, the less likely they are to fall off tackles.
And it’s not just without the ball that Scotland have been able to benefit from their conditioning. In attack, Scotland moved the ball wide more often than any other team in last year’s Championship, doing so on 14% of phases – Opta’s definition of ‘wide’ being 20+ metres from the previous ruck – suggesting they have the fitness and speed to play an expansive game that stretches teams.
Yule feels fortunate with the people he’s around on an almost daily basis: Townsend and his coaching staff, Steve Tandy, Pieter de Villiers and John Dalziel. “They’re continually leading and driving standards, which I have to support from an S&C perspective.”
In a way, he has been in a high-performance environment his entire life, imbued as it has been with a family ethos that championed excellence both in sport and academics. “Mum was a shot-putter, dad was a weightlifter – both competed in the Commonwealth Games – and my twin brother, Tommy, got to the Olympics for weightlifting,” he says, neglecting to mention that in the past he himself has been named Scotland’s strongest man (under 90kg and under 105kg) and competed at two Commonwealth Games.
That extraordinary sporting lineage has continued. Yule’s son, Kerr, played last year for Scotland U20 at just 17 years of age, and will line up for them against Wales in this Friday’s U20 Six Nations in Colwyn Bay. Glasgow centre Kerr will also be eligible to play for the U20s next year.
With the benefit of a club background, Yule outlines what a Guinness Men’s Six Nations campaign looks like from an S&C perspective, and more importantly, how to tailor training to players’ individual needs. “There is a natural increase in intensity bringing players together at international level,” he points out. “Players are well prepared by their clubs for coming into camp, and we need to understand the individual to ensure they are prepared for those demands. It’s such an intense period but with good levels of preparation and optimising recovery during this time, players are ready to take on the rigours of Test match rugby.”
Needless to say, the current crop of Scotland players are exemplars of physical excellence. He cites the aforementioned Gray along with Rory Darge, Scotland’s new co-captain at just 23 years old. “They’re two extremes of a younger player coming through and an older player that’s looking after himself,” he says, before stressing that the list of players who have stood out for him is endless. “With all of these [standout players], their qualities have been underpinned by that mindset of taking ownership of their development. As part of that they still look for support and ask questions, looking to continue developing or retaining the qualities they have.”
Reverting back to a player’s origin story can be as instructive as their first foray into lifting weights. “We often ask how we can get kids to embrace other sports when they’re young, so they’re getting into rugby through multi-sports,” says Yule. “They go to judo, they go to athletics club, they go to football, they play rugby. Jamie Ritchie did judo, for example. That alone, without doing a formal S&C programme, will give them a lot of attributes around the contact area. and prepare them for the physical demands and skills of the game.
“When the kid is older, that’s when the formal S&C programme develops some of those supporting strength and speed characteristics, underpinned by excellent technical ability. Merely doing a lot of sports related to rugby when you’re younger can put a good foundation in place.”